It's always the same question that trumps the excitement of a new trip:
How early should I get to the airport?
While the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) recommends that you get to the airport 2 hours prior to the departure time for a domestic flight and 3 hours before for an international flight, several factors must be taken into account when deciding your arrival time at the airport before a flight.
Whether you're flying domestic or international is only one of those many elements to consider.
I've been been flying for over 10 years now, both domestic and international, travelling with a checked bag or with nothing but a carry-on, during calmer and peak times.
Not a single time have I been later at the airport. Nor do I wait at the airport for ages before takeoff! I just know exactly when to get to the airport.
This is what I aim to teach you here:
- How early you should get to the airport, whether you're flying abroad or not
- Which factors you need to consider to arrive at the right time
- The answers to popular beliefs that cause air travellers to miss their flight
Before jumping in...
Did you know that according to EU law, passengers who were denied boarding due to overbooking can claim up to 600€ in compensation? This also goes for flight delays and cancellations.
If this happened to you, you may be eligible:
Ready for takeoff?
How early should I get to the airport?
How early should I get to the airport for an international flight?
As a rule of thumb, you need to be at the airport at least 3 hours before the official time of departure when flying international. That's what the US Transportation Security Administration advises to air passengers.
Now, well-travelled experts could argue that this is a reasonable amount of time when you have checked bags to drop off and the airport is likely to be busy, either because you're flying at peak hour or during the holidays. If you're a bit anxious about flying, you might even want to add an extra half hour to alleviate that stress.
But I often get to the airport no earlier than 1h30 prior to boarding, even when traveling abroad.
So why do you need to arrive earlier for international flights?
Because of the extra steps required before reaching the boarding area.
More often than not, if you're flying from an international airport, you will have to go through immigration and visa/passport control prior to departure. Even if you're flying within the EU zone or between the US and Canada.
You're also more likely to travel with more than just a carry-on bag when going abroad and that drop-off line can lengthen your stay at the airport.
One thing you should do, no matter where you're headed, is check in online prior to getting at the airport. Not only will it save you some precious time, you're also less likely to be bumped off the flight (of course, should that happen, you might get overbooking compensation).
There's also the fact that some specific routes require an earlier arrival at the gate, as do certain destinations and airports. If you're on an international flight to the US, plan at least 30 minutes more than you would otherwise.
Your safe bet? Check with the airline if there are any check-in or gate arrival requirements. If not, get to the airport between 1h30 and 3h30 depending on the criteria listed below in the "what you need to consider" section.
Travel tip: apply to Global Entry if you travel abroad regularly. Most passengers who benefit from the program wait less than 5 minutes at the security check!
How early should I get to the airport for a domestic flight?
As previously mentioned, the TSA recommends getting to the airport 2 hours before a domestic flight. Again, this is the rule of thumb. The factors to consider listed in the next section influence this baseline.
For certain flights, it's okay to arrive at the airport 1 hour before departure.
In the US, for instance, air passengers can enroll in the TSA Precheck program. If your application is accepted, this will allow you to save a tremendous amount of time during security check, as agents will let you pass without removing their shoes, laptops, liquids, belts or light jackets. Needless to say, this speeds up the process. Between that and skipping the security line altogether, there's only one step.
That being said, there are also factors that could lengthen the whole process. When flying domestic, you're more likely to depart from a small airport. As such, they aren't as busy. But because of that, the amount of staff there is often limited, so in the end, checking in and going through security check could take you just as long as if you were flying from an international airport.
How early should I be at the airport to check in?
I can't recommend enough checking in online rather than at the airport. Mainly because it saves an awful lot of time to do so, but also because some (mainly low-cost airlines) will make you pay an additional fee for checking in at the airport.
Several airlines, on the contrary, make it mandatory for passengers to do so. If that's the case or you forgot to check in online and are left with no other alternative, here's what I recommend.
Get to the airport an extra 15 to 30 minutes earlier if you have to check in there, depending on when you're flying, whether you're headed abroad or not, and how big the airport is. Obviously, if it's an international departure during a busy time of year such as holidays, and from one of the busiest airports, you want to leave enough time for checking in.
What do I need to consider to know how early I should arrive at the airport?
Domestic or International Flight
As a general rule, you need to plan some extra time when flying internationally. Security checkpoints for this type of flight sometimes require plenty of time.
First, because you need to go through passport control. Then, because the airport security staff might take a closer look at your luggage, since some countries have more restrictive lists of what you can bring on a plane.
Flying during peak time can easily add an extra hour or more to how early you should be at the airport.
Some peak times are obvious: airports are generally busier during the summer holidays for example.
But not all airports experience the same peak type. For some, mornings are the time of day when most travelers are taking the plane, while for others, it's in the evening. Peak days vary the same way: early in the week for some, later for others.
Here are a couple of travel tips to better handle peak times:
- Check your airline's website to know when they experience peak times and days. Or just google "peak times [airport name]"
- Use the MyTSA app to check how busy your departure airport is likely to be at the time and date of your flight
Travelling with a checked bag will require you to show up earlier at the airport. Most airlines have strict baggage check-in requirements and won't accept luggage being dropped off past a certain time limit.
The latter will be indicated on your ticket. If not, check the airline's website to know until how long before the flight you can check your bags.
Most airlines let you check-in at least 24 hours before your flight's departure. This will save you a lot of time, so do it.
If for some reason, you have to check-in at the airport, make sure that you also get there on time: similarly to baggage drop-off, you won't be able to do so past the time limit prescribed by the airline (generally about one hour before the scheduled departure time, but double check with your air carrier).
Gate arrival and boarding time limit
Finally, keep in mind that arriving too late at the gate will most likely result in a boarding denial for you. And you won't get a denied boarding compensation for that one.
Your boarding pass should mention until when you can board the plane. That's because departure time is different from boarding time, and airlines close the gates generally 15-20 minutes prior to the schedule time of departure. Make sure you're at the gate before the cutoff time.
Can I arrive later at the airport if my flight is delayed?
I tracked my flight status: it says that my flight is delayed. So I can come later, right?
First of all, delays and cancellations statuses aren’t always precise and are likely to evolve without being updated online in real time.
Secondly, some airlines will require you to check in at the initially required time despite the delay. It’s not the brightest idea of the century, but you should follow this guideline if you don’t want to be considered a no-show and be denied boarding.
Can I skip the line if I'm late for my flight?
Yes and no. It depends. Most passengers would probably let you pass in front of them to skip the long line and go through the security screening before them.
But airport staff doesn't always let you do so. Skipping the line is neither a right nor a privilege granted to late passengers, or even everyone would do it, so don't count on that when considering oversleeping.
Even if you risk missing your flight, maybe because of traffic jams on the way, this does not give you the right to move up the line. Anticipate the wait times as best as possible.
How long does the airline wait for late passengers?
The flight crew will almost never hold the plane for late passengers. The repercussion on the aircraft's flight schedule would be too great.
For international flights, the airline is more likely to remove your bag from the hold than wait for you.
That being said, transfers can be an exception. If there are connecting passengers late because of the delay of their first flight with the same airline, the plane may wait for them, and you could benefit from it. But don't count on that.
Final Words on How Early Should You Get to the Airport
No one wants their stay at the airport to last as long as their travel time. But you should be careful not to arrive too late either.
Hopefully, this post gave you some insights as to how early you should be at the airport!
You may get up to 600€ per passenger for a delayed, cancelled, or overbooked flight.